After leaving Eastern Europe, flying another quarter of the way around the world, and spending a few hectic days in crowded Bangkok, we were excited for the short flight to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand and looking forward to having ten days there. Chiang Mai is a much smaller city than Bangkok but is big enough to have a trendy side. We ended up staying in the Nimmanhemin neighborhood, far enough from the Old City so that we had to take a tuk tuk or a red truck, but close enough to the trendy spots so that we could walk to dinner and even the movies.
Oh, what the heck is a tuk tuk you ask? A tuk tuk (same word in Thailand and Cambodia even though they speak different languages) is like a large wooden wagon pulled by a scooter. In Thailand they can carry two passengers while here in Cambodia they can carry four with a slightly different design.
The other option for public transport in Chiang Mai is a red truck, also called a songthaew. These covered pick-up trucks drive in a general direction, picking up passengers along the way depending on where they want to go. After waving one over, you determine if it’s going the general direction you want and hop in. Though they got very hot while sitting in the typical Thai city traffic, they were a great solution for our transport needs.
One of the first things we did when we arrived in Chiang Mai was to connect with Carole, one of Nate’s best friends from high school in New York. Carole’s family is originally from Laos, which gives her an advantage learning Thai, and after studying abroad here in college she decided to make Thailand her home for nine years so far. We spent an amazing weekend with Carole’s husband’s family in the Thai countryside village of Prao, but that deserves a post all on it’s own. We did also enjoy a lovely dinner with Carole at a place popular with the locals outside the city: The Organic Coffee Bus.
Our favorite activity in Chiang Mai, aside from hanging out with Carole’s family, was undoubtedly our cooking class at Basil Cookery School; it has changed our whole experience of Southeast Asia so far. We recognize ingredients and flavors we never would otherwise and got to ask lots of questions of our teachers. First, we went to the market and learned how to tell the difference between three types of ginger, three types of eggplant, three different chiles, and three different types of basil, as well as identify all the other common ingredients in Thai food.
After the market, our class went to the school. We had a dynamic group of eight, all Brits except for us. There was a lot of chopping and pounding and sweating over our woks. One interesting tip we picked up: smash garlic with the side of your knife but don’t bother peeling it. We just threw everything right into the wok and it was delicious! That will probably save us a few hours of our life cumulatively from now on, right? We each got to pick seven items that we wanted to make. Nate and I mostly chose different ones, meaning that we got to try 13 different dishes over the course of the day! Nate’s favorite was his Panang curry, and mine was my chicken coconut soup. This is also where I got my first taste of mango sticky rice for dessert. There’s no going back. It was a full day and truly exhausting but it was one of the richest experiences we had in Thailand.
And yes, we went to the movies in Chiang Mai. Twice. The mall was air conditioned and we both had a few days of illness, so going to the movies proved to be a great way to get out of the apartment while not expecting too much from our sick selves. Also, Mockingjay Part II came out while we were there. I think there were about four people in the theater including us. Thais aren’t as excited about The Hunger Games as us. Interesting side note about the movies: if you read our last post about Bangkok, you know that the Thai royal family is a big deal. In the theater, after the previews, patrons are required to stand while the King’s anthem is played along with photos of him. Many of these photos include him sitting in various places with his dogs and the music sounds like Kenny G music sung by a Thai woman. There was a lot of lip bitting to stifle our chuckles, especially watching it the second time through when we knew what was coming, because the King’s anthem is serious business.
One of my favorite things to do in Chiang Mai was to get a massage (1 hour = $6). I found a chain of massage parlors, Lila Massage, that trains and hires recently incarcerated women. I get to support this social innovation and get a cheap massage? I took full advantage.
First, I went to one and got a lovely gold pedicure in true Thai spirit while Nate got a neck and shoulder massage. Then one day while Nate stayed home, I went to another location and got a full body massage. I wasn’t quite prepared for this. I think our masseuses in Bangkok went a little easy on us during our romantic birthday couples massage. There was a lot of pulling and cracking and twisting and kicking. But, in the spirit of this adventurous year, I let go as much as I physically could and just went with it. It was still pretty relaxing with the traditional Thai music, darkened room, and the fans offering a bit of a breeze. At first I was surprised to see all the massages happening in one large room, but it turned out to be a nice, quiet kind of communal experience. Plus, I like the aspect of connecting with someone via touch even when you can’t connect with words.
Our favorite temple in Chiang Mai was probably Wat Chedi Luang, which began to be constructed in the 14th century. There were lots of other temples here and we didn’t concern ourselves with which ones to see, we just headed inside if we felt like it, sometimes catching monks in prayer and sometimes catching a quiet moment alone in a holy place.
On our last day in Chiang Mai, before we took an overnight bus back to Bangkok, we finally went to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, the famous Temple on the Mountain. It was crowded.
But worth the climb and the fuss. It was a bustling place covered in gold everywhere you look. Not the cool, quiet temples we were used to but we were happy to go see this unique place.
Now, we’re in a strange in-between time: still reflecting on our weeks in Thailand but preparing to say goodbye to Cambodia already – we leave for Vietnam in two days! We won’t be traveling quite as stylish as these guys though…